Java Hustings

Michael Vatikiotis
Jun 17th, 2014

Indonesia elects a new President on 9 July. In Jogyakarta, the support of the Goddess of the Southern Seas is vital.

In Java, it’s important to seek the blessings of the spirits. And there’s perhaps none greater that Nyai Roro Kidul, the Goddess of the Southern Seas.  For the people of Central Java, especially along the Southern Coast, she is considered the key deity for ensuring the tranquillity of a realm caught between stormy seas and menacing volcanoes.  Luckily, Nyai Roro Kidul, who is most often depicted as a beautiful woman, is also the spiritual consort of the sultans of Jogyakarta, who still reign over a special administrative area centred on Jogyakarta, the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Martaram.

Here, beneath an elderly ficus tree by the gates to the palace, Mas Tiarno, who drives one of the city’s myriad trishaws, expounds on who he thinks will win the coming Presidential election in Indonesia.  ‘Everyone here in Central Java will vote for Jokowi,’ he says confidently. Jokowi is the diminutive nickname of the current favourite to win the election on 9 July, Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo.  Tiarno goes on to give the usual reasons: Jokowi the man of the people, the son of the soil, clean and professional.  ‘When Jokowi came to Jogyakarta the other day he rode around in a horse and cart! Now isn’t that something?’

But for Tiarno the clincher is that Jokowi held a very special meeting with the Sultan. “In there,’ he says, nodding his head in the direction of the palace gates behind him. ‘Four eyes only, and for two hours.  Normal people only get to see Sri Sultan for about an hour, and never in there.’  The spiritual reference is implicit, for the Sultan normally communes with Nyai Roro Kidul in special places, the inner sanctum of the palace being one of them.

For those sceptical of the potency of Javanese culture and tradition in Indonesian politics, Tiarno is quick to point out that after the incumbent President floated the idea of eliminating the Sultan’s role as Governor of Jogyakarta, there was a huge uproar in the city and the President’s own Democrat Party was defeated in the elections for local legislators last April.

But there’s a more modern spiritual dimension to this election that highlights the difference between Jokowi and his antagonist, former Armed Forces Special Forces commander Prabowo Subianto.  Jokowi is standing for a party with deep secular and nationalist roots, whilst Prabowo has built a coalition on solidly Islamic foundations.

The intersection of the Islamic faith with the Buddhist and Hindu traditions that pre-date the arrival of Islam makes Central Java a sensitive weather vane for the level of tolerance in Indonesian society.  In recent years, with the advance of Arabized Islamic orthodoxy fuelled by Wahabi foundations from the Middle East, the traditionally syncretic culture of Central Java has frayed.  The week after Jokowi campaigned in Jogyakarta, the head of the extremist Laskar Jihad (Holy Warriors) launched a war against pluralism from the city’s main mosque.  Christians in Jogyakarta are nervous after a series of attacks on a church in the Sleman district of the city.

Jokowi seems to represent the tolerant, pluralistic end of the religious spectrum.  A Muslim with a modernist Muhammadiya background, he is proud of his staunch defence of a Christian city official who was fiercely attacked by Islamic extremists in Jakarta.  Prabowo, by contrast, has embraced both the conservative and modern orthodox elements of Islam, using them to add ballast to his coalition, much as he used Islamic extremists to counter the popular movement against his then father-in-law, President Suharto, in the late 1990s.

The religious divide cuts deeply across the modern political spectrum.  The secular nationalist tradition is closely associated with the party that nominated Jokowi.  The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDIP, is led by Megawati Soekarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia’s founding President Sukarno.  She herself served as President from 2000-2004. The party’s red flags flutter all over the Javanese countryside, clashing with the green traditionally used to denote Islamic foundations and boarding schools.

Back in the 1950s when Sukarno was still President, an alliance of Islamic forces came close to winning the majority of votes with an agenda to transform Indonesia into an Islamic state.  When the Islamists failed at the ballot box, they rebelled and sought to divide the country. Sukarno turned to the military and declared a period of Guided Democracy, which put the country on the steep and slippery slope to military dictatorship a decade later.

The Islamic / secular nationalist divide continues to colour political sentiments, with Java staunchly nationalist, while Sumatra and Sulawesi – the regions that joined the rebellion in the late 1950s – are mostly green.  Jokowi is regarded as a secular nationalist bulwark protecting pluralism, especially among liberals in the capital, Jakarta. The fear is that Prabowo will curry favour with those who wish to undermine pluralism.

However, something else is happening to Indonesian society with this election that could begin to erode these primordial boundaries. ‘In this election more people will make independent choices. They will decide with their hearts,’ says Elga Joan Sarapung of the Christian inter faith dialogue organization Interfidei.  Elga was referring to Jokowi’s homespun popular appeal and compelling honesty, which is has galvanized many voters from all walks of life and religious persuasions to contribute their own money to his campaign.

This grass roots support for Jokowi has split the Islamic constituency for the first time. Many modernist Islamic intellectuals argue that however traditional it is to vote against the secular nationalist camp, the country desperately needs a new style of leadership, one that springs from the people rather than from historical enmity.


Michael Vatikiotis
Last blog date: Oct 18th, 2016


Please login to comment.

Most Popular

Fan Dai
Feb 4th, 2014
Sreedhevi Iyer
Apr 1st, 2014
Melody Kemp
Dec 13th, 2013
Andrea Berrini
Jul 18th, 2014